A Brief History of Garfield
Jim Davis got his first taste of professional cartooning as an assistant for the Western-themed comic strip Tumbleweeds. From 1972 to 1975, he also drew a comic of his own. Sadly, Gnorm Gnat wasn’t a hit. Focusing on several insect characters, the strip ran in just one newspaper — Pendleton, Indiana’s Pendleton Times. Davis’ next comic would fare much differently.
Surveying the world of newspaper comics, Jim Davis recognized a distinct opportunity. While several dogs populated the Comics section, cartoon cats were few and far between. What’s more, Charlie Brown’s beloved beagle Snoopy had become a dependable source of marketing dollars. What if a cartoonist could make a cat just as popular?
In 2009, Davis said, “I thought if I could create a convincing cat, I could say and do anything I wanted on the human condition.” He believed it would be easier to match human thoughts and feelings onto cats because they’re typically so laidback. Garfield’s tendency to take “laidback” to its extreme has certainly made him a favorite of Monday-hating people everywhere.
Davis based Garfield’s distinct personality on his grandfather, “a large cantankerous man.” Though the author has remarked that he’s “a little bit Garfield” himself, he inspired the cat’s put-upon owner, Jon Arbuckle, more directly. “I am Jon,” he has said, “I’m the daydreamer.” In the earliest Garfield strips, Jon even worked as a cartoonist.
The first Garfield comic was published on June 19, 1978. Success quickly followed. By the early 80s, Garfield was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers and generating millions in merchandise dollars. In 1982, Davis founded Paws Inc. to help manage this merchandising and better steer the Garfield brand. Since the late 90s, Davis has worked with a team of artists to create each Garfield strip, though he still approves them all before publishing. Paws Inc. was sold to Viacom in 2019.
In 1998, the first National Garfield the Cat Day was observed in commemoration of the character’s 20th birthday. June 19th, 2020 will be the 22nd-annual celebration!
Fun Facts About Garfield
- In a sense, Garfield owes his name to an important figure from American history. Jim Davis named Garfield after his grandfather James Garfield Davis. The elder Mr. Davis was named after former President James Garfield.
- Garfield’s look has evolved considerably over the years and his behavior has changed, too. Before 1981, he sat rather than standing on two legs. Jim Davis suggests he made this change with the help of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. Davis was struggling to draw a bipedal Garfield when, suddenly, Shulz offered his assistance. Describing the encounter to The Guardian, Davis confirms that “Charles Schulz drew the first standing Garfield.”
- One ubiquitous piece of Garfield merchandise — the Garfield Stuck On You plush — was the result of a happy accident. In the late 1980s, drivers all over the country stuck this doll to their windows with suction cups. Davis originally intended for each Garfield to feature velcro on its paws, but he probably didn’t mind the mistake. Americans bought more than 2 million of the dolls within their first year of production.
- Davis and his team went digital in 2011. In December 2019, Davis began raffling off all of the original paper strips through a Dallas-based auction house.
- Some fans assume that Garfield predates Heathcliff because the former has made a bigger pop culture impact. The world’s second-most famous fat, orange cat actually beat Garfield to newspapers by three years.
Garfield by the Numbers
- Jim Davis claims to have grown up with 25 pet cats on his family’s Indiana farm.
- The first Garfield comic was published in 41 newspapers.
- In 2013, Garfield was published in 2,580 newspapers and set a new Guinness World Record as the most widely-syndicated comic on Earth.
- Davis has published 11 collections of Garfield comics. Each one has topped the New York Times Best Seller list.
- Garfield: The Movie was not a hit with critics, earning just a 15% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Its sequel, A Tail of Two Kitties, scored an even worse 11%.
- Moviegoers were far kinder to both films. Combined, they earned more than $340 million at the worldwide box office.
- Merchandise, books, movies, and several television shows have turned Garfield into an empire that generates around $1 billion every year.
Garfield Fandom Today
Cats are arguably the internet’s favorite animal. It’s no surprise, then, that one of the world’s favorite cats would find a sizable online audience. No one could have predicted, however, the strange turn that Garfield fandom has taken over the last decade-plus.
In 2008, Dan Walsh’s blog Garfield Minus Garfield began making the rounds. Walsh altered Garfield strips to remove the titular character. Featuring a lone Jon Arbuckle — seemingly talking to himself — the strips became a viral sensation. The memes have only gotten stranger in the intervening years. Today, one Reddit community welcomes subscribers to create art that reimagines Garfield characters as Lovecraftian monsters.
Davis admits that he doesn’t appreciate every new iteration of his famous character. In general, though, he doesn’t mind the new school of Garfield lovers and their unusual online enclaves. He remarks, “I enjoy seeing other artists interpret Garfield. Often they’ll reveal something about the character that informs and enlightens me.” Some new interpretations are sure to come in honor of this year’s Garfield Day.